By Michel Cousins
Moscow’s objective, it is claimed, is to control of the Libyan coast and, with it, control of the main clandestine migration routes.
One of the main subjects when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Russian Vladimir Putin recently discussed their “strategic” relationship, was Libya, Russian officials said, along with Syria and Yemen.
That was not surprising and not just because of the crisis in Libya. It interests the Russians considerably.
Until the 2011 revolution, Tripoli was close to Moscow, politically and economically. Russian oil and gas companies were becoming significantly involved in exploration and production in Libya.
Russia won half the contract to build the planned massive Libyan rail network and Libya bought Russian weapons — lots of them — some of which remain unpaid for.
However, if reports coming from the United Kingdom are accurate, Russia wants much more than a few prized Libyan contracts.
The Sun, the most widely read newspaper in the United Kingdom, claims Russia wants to take control of Libya.
It said in a recent article that Russia has set up military bases in Benghazi and Tobruk, where it has deployed special forces (Spetsnaz) and has been sending weapons to help the head of the Libyan National Army in the east of the country, Khalifa Haftar, take over the country.
Moscow’s objective, it is claimed, is to control of the Libyan coast and, with it, control of the main clandestine migration routes across the Mediterranean. Putin, it is suggested, would use these to threaten Western Europe.
The Sun said the threat has resulted in British MPs calling on their government to counter it.
The story, which the Sun said was given to it by a “Whitehall source,” in other words someone connected to the British government, has been rejected as nonsense by Moscow.
Libya observers likewise dismiss it. “Moscow is playing a very careful game in Libya,” said one. “It is keeping its options open. It knows that it is far too soon to openly support one side or another.” Strongly backing Haftar, it is pointed out, could easily backfire.
Why, some observers ask, was the information leaked to the Sun, a newspaper not known for in-depth analysis of international affairs? It is known for its nationalistic views. It strongly supported Brexit, for example.
The suggestion is that this is part of the new cold war between the United Kingdom and Russia but also a diversion tactic by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit-beleaguered government aimed at frightening the British public about Russian intentions and so rally them behind it.
It was pointed out that the story in its current form surfaced in Washington in July when US intelligence sources were quoted saying that Moscow planned to move into Libya and build a base there. However, it is noted, in three months the story has gone from “possible” Russian plans to move into Libya and have a base there to two bases operating.
There is nothing new in reports of Spetsnaz forces in Benghazi. As for the Russians being allowed to set up bases in Tobruk and Benghazi, the story surfaced at the beginning of 2017 when Haftar visited a Russian aircraft carrier. He subsequently denied it and there has been no credible evidence of Russian bases in eastern Libya.
It is pointed out, too, that French forces are known to have been operating in Benghazi, providing intelligence support to the Libyan National Army — three French intelligence officers died in a helicopter crash there in July 2016.
However, the Sun report mentions nothing of this nor of the widely reported activity of Egyptian and Emirati military forces in support of Haftar nor of the Italian military presence in Misrata nor of the persistent reports of a British military presence in the country.
Russia’s calculated balancing act on Libya has meant that it remains in contact with both Haftar and the Presidency Council. It supports UN-led efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis and recognises the Presidency Council on the basis that it was approved by the UN Security Council.
Russia also recognises Haftar as general commander of the Libyan armed forces, as appointed by the House of Representatives. So, while Haftar and his advisers have been to Moscow on several occasions to meet with key Russian officials, notably Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister who is Putin’s special representative for the Middle East and Africa and who directs Moscow’s Middle East Policy, Presidency Council leader Fayez al-Sarraj has been there, too.
The fact that Moscow does not officially recognise the Presidency Council’s Government of National Accord (GNA) — on the basis that it has not been legitimised by the House of Representatives — has not been an impediment, either. Russian pragmatism means that it talks to it as well. The GNA foreign minister has also been to Moscow for talks.
Not that pragmatism has stopped Russia from using Libya as a tool to beat the West. Russian officials and the Russian media happily blame the West for Libya’s woes because of its role in the 2011 overthrow of the Qaddafi regime.
Russian diplomats, though, make little attempt to disguise the fact that Moscow has political, economic and strategic interests in Libya and wants a political solution. Reviving arms sales, blocked by the UN ban, is a particular objective, especially with the Libyan armed forces wedded to Russian military technology. So too, are building a Libyan railway network and oil and gas exploration.
More important, though, is the fight against terrorism. The Islamic State in Syria is linked to the presence of the Islamic State in Libya. That makes for common objectives with Cairo, with its own battles against militants who have had bases in Libya.
For both the Russians and Egyptians, smashing militants in the region has drawn them closer. Regarding Libya, it makes profound political sense they continue to support Haftar, who has proven his ability to do just that.
The notion that Russia, any more than Egypt, wants to take over Libya or use it as a tool against the West remains unproven, no matter what newspapers in the United Kingdom suggest.
Michel Cousins is the editor-in-chief of the Libya Herald.